Personal Knowledge Management

Want to build a better personal knowledge management system? Ask yourself this one question (that changes everything)

A true PKM system encompasses more than just notes. Building yourself a customized, mindfully-designed personal knowledge management system means starting with the end in mind.
Elizabeth Butler, MD, PhD 5 min read
Want to build a better personal knowledge management system? Ask yourself this one question (that changes everything)
Table of Contents

Digital notes are everywhere

Let's be honest– we all take digital notes these days. Whether we're tapping down a quick note in our phones, taking class notes on our iPads, drafting ideas in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, or outlining ideas with an app like Dynalist or Workflowy, we're all creating digital notes in one way or another. Never mind things like saving articles to Pocket or creating a database of bookmarks on Raindrop or Notion. We are capturing ideas, inspiration, and knowledge digitally everywhere we go.

So, you already take digital notes. Does that mean you have a personal knowledge management system? Yes, probably. Does it mean you have a sustainable, mindfully-designed personal knowledge management system that helps you work towards your goals? It depends.

Personal knowledge management isn't just about digital note taking - though notes are a part of any PKM system

Personal knowledge management is sometimes used as shorthand for "organizing digital notes" or "creating a digital note-taking system." You may wonder: I already take digital notes. How is personal knowledge management any different? And absolutely– keeping your digital notes organized is certainly a piece of any PKM system.

But a true PKM system encompasses more than just notes. Building yourself a customized, mindfully-designed personal knowledge management system means thinking about all the varied types of information that you need to process, keep track of, act on, refer to, or share with others.

Creating a goal-focused PKM system

You need to step back and think broadly about all the types and formats of information you process on a daily basis– and precisely what you want to do with that information.

The most important question to ask yourself is:

What is your underlying purpose in building a note taking system? What is your end goal? What are you trying to create? To learn? To teach? To develop? To build? To make? To change?

The first step to building an effective, sustainable personal knowledge management system is to start with the end in mind.

Define your outcomes and your deliverables.

Get clear on the reason you want to manage this information– no one ever truly just wants to manage information for its own sake.

We want to manage information to help us achieve some end goal. Take some time to reflect and get clear on that that end goal is for you.

Build a system that matches your goals

Once you know what you're trying to build, you can reverse-engineer a PKM system that supports this goal.

Everyone's goals are different – and therefore our ideal PKM setups all look different. There is no single app or software that is perfect for everyone. We all need to start with defining our end game. Then we can mindfully select apps that match our current needs and priorities.

Example of information flow before implementing a PKM system

If you don't have a clear place to put information when it comes across your inbox, web browser, or mind, you're going to feel scattered. Below is a small sample of the types of information that you can easily encounter in a a given day.

Where does it all go? Where should you put it? Without a mindful PKM system in place, you'll likely stash this information in many different places, without a clear system or path to access it later. You'll feel frustrated later on when you can't find that great idea you know you had.

A place for everything: sample information flow after implementing a PKM system

Once you identify patterns in the type of materials that you're managing, you can create a more measured, mindful approach to building and maintaining your PKM system.

For example, I've divided the random assortment of items in the graphic above into subcategories below:

Of course, these items will need to be further categorized and organized within your PKM system (you don't need meeting minutes next to the posters and forms from your kid's school, for example).

This is a topic to be covered in future blog posts as well as in depth in Calmer Notes, my upcoming digital book/elearning bundle (currently available for preorder at tiered pricing discount over at Gumroad, just FYI).

Takeaways in a nutshell

  • Acknowledge the current state of your PKM system, even if you're frustrated by it.
  • Get clear on what you'd like to achieve or create if you had organized notes and files (begin with the end in mind).
  • Work on building a system that matches and supports your goals.

Next Steps: explore the Calmer Notes method for digital note taking and personal knowledge management

If you're a creative person who would like to create an intentional, mindful, flexible personal knowledge management system that fits your busy life, the Calmer Notes method might be just what you've been searching for.

I've created Calmer Notes: Personal Knowledge Management for Busy People based on my own two-decade experience of applying personal knowledge management in a wide variety of work environments. The Calmer Notes method will take you through the process of creating and maintaining a tailored, mindfully-designed personal knowledge management system to organize your digital notes and files.

This self-paced course (which includes digital book + workbook + PKM app database) is now available for purchase at Gumroad.

You'll learn:

  • What personal knowledge management (PKM) means -- and why busy people need a PKM system to stop feeling overwhelmed 📚
  • How to identify the existing pieces of your PKM system 🔍
  • How to choose the right note-taking app that actually works for you (instead of switching apps every few months) 📝
  • How to design and create a personal knowledge management system that works for the reality of your right-now life 🕰️
  • Years of hard-won, first-hand knowledge about personal knowledge management I've accumulated after years of completing a PhD, an MD, and working as a physician while parenting 👩⚕️

If you'd like to explore more, check out an overview of the Calmer Notes approach or visit Calmer Notes.

You'll also get a free guide to the 5 most common note taking myths (that just might be stopping you from building a sustainable personal knowledge management system) when you sign up for my newsletter.

Wishing you all the best on your personal knowledge management journey!

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